Book Review: Teaching Africa

As a relatively new teacher of African history at universities, I am keen to find publications that will help me reflect upon, and develop my work. Unlike in most American PhD programmes (I understand) teaching isn’t part of the core programme for doctoral candidates in the UK. So I was lucky to have the chance to teach on a range of world history courses, benefitting from the experience of other tutors and the course directors whilst finishing my thesis. But I’ve kept an eye out for literature on teaching global, or world history. I have found Antoinette Burton’s recent book on world history courses, and Fred Cooper and Jane Burbank’s world history survey useful reads in terms of the ways in which historians of different fields approach these classes.

But whilst I’ve found these books useful tools, they don’t engage with key questions around teaching African history specifically. How is it possible to communicate the history of this diverse continent in meaningful ways?

Teaching Africa

It was with this in mind that I came across Teaching Africa: A Guide for the 21st Century Classroom. Unfortunately, this should really be subtitled ‘A Guide for the 21st Century American Classroom’. The writers do acknowledge this focus (Lundy writes that ‘this book aims to transform the disparate and often ineffective ways that teachers teach Africa in American higher education’), but it is a significant factor in the approach of many of the writers.  Coincidentally, AEGIS’ 2nd annual history conference in Durham offers a potential corrective to this US focus.

Despite this bias, I’ve found the book thought provoking. I can only touch on a few chapters here, but highlights for me include Jennifer Coffman’s introductory chapter, focusing on the practical ways in which students can be encouraged to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions, incorporating using film and music. Completely out of my ‘modern’ comfort zone, Kathleen Smythe looks to the longue duree to demonstrate how African history speaks to key historical themes such as globalization and environmental change.  Karl Death (in the lone chapter from the UK) addresses questions of the position of Wales and Ireland in the colonial project, seeking to teach postcolonially, despite their ‘Janus-faced postcolonial status’.

Catherine Kroll describes using the novel Half of A Yellow Sun, particularly what she terms Adichie’s use of ‘inversion’  to encourage students to think about ‘the larger reshaping of intellectual and material history in African studies as a whole’. For Kroll,

‘The central pedagogical challenge in teaching university students in the global North about Africa is to represent its literature, culture and history as processual, fluid and changing.’

Trevor Getz’s discussion of course changes at the University of the Western Cape, (UWC) in South Africa is fascinating.  Following the end of apartheid and radical changes in history teaching at a school level, the university also faced considerable change in terms of the make up of the student body and their interest in history classes that didn’t have clear economic benefits. Getz describes the departmental approach to teaching history in terms of broader political change in South Africa. The history department shifted their first year course to a specifically methodological class, reflecting new teaching goals:

‘members of the department came to feel that their primary task in the classroom was not just to relay to students new narratives of the past in which Africans featured positively, or even to convince them to see multiple perspectives of national and global narratives, but also to help them question the authority of all narratives – even those expounded by their professors.’

Ultimately this led to a course focused on key debates in South African history, including the Xhosa millennialist Xhosa ‘cattle killing’ movements of the 1850s.  Getz suggests, in order to teach using this method, the instructor is required to abandon their position as “knower”, in the classroom, enabling students to challenge and discuss historical accounts effectively, an approach that goes beyond African history, of course.

Perhaps the biggest endorsement of the book is that it would be even more useful if it came with archived course materials online for further reading, given the broad scope, but short chapter length, of the contributors.

We’re planning a series on teaching African Studies at Africa in Words. If you teach a course in the field and would like to contribute, please do contact us africainwords@gmail.com



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